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MetroStars' Donadoni Finds Life is Good in MLS

June 10, 1997|JOHN JEANSONNE | NEWSDAY

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Which comes first, the crowd or the crowd pleaser? The full house or the star? Ticket sales or Roberto Donadoni?

This is not philosophy. This is spectator soccer in America, at just about the chicken-or-the-egg stage. Which comes first, making money or spending money?

At Giants Stadium, made noticeably more attractive by a temporary $1 million grass field, slightly more than 18,000 fans per game have been paying to see the MetroStars, the local professional team in the second-year Major League Soccer project. On that natural greensward Donadoni, the much-decorated 33-year-old Italian midfielder who did not come cheaply, connects the dots into an emerging picture of how the game ought to be played.

So far, so good. Among soccer aficionados, Donadoni lends legitimacy to the team and to the MLS. He has a clear drawing power among Italian-Americans, as well as casual soccer followers aware that he has played in the last two World Cups and two European championships. He makes his teammates better, not unlike a John Stockton pulling invisible wires with the Utah Jazz. In return, he is one of three MetroStars being paid the MLS maximum salary of $192,500 (goalkeeper Tony Meola and midfielder Tab Ramos, just returning from knee surgery, are the others), plus hefty endorsement fees.

"This is a new experience," Donadoni said. "It's important not only for soccer, but for my life. It was a good time for a change for me." He lives luxuriously in Morris Plains, N.J. He and his girlfriend recently trekked to Princeton to buy a $1,000 dog. He drives a new silver Mercedes Benz. He frequents New York City's art galleries. He spends a lot of time on the golf course. "Eight, 10 handicap," he said. "For me, it's good."

After the bunker mentality necessary in the Italian league, where overly fervent fans invade the personal space of top players and occasionally harass them, Donadoni has found a reasonable alternative here. His English, and his comfort level both on and off the field, have improved dramatically in the last year.

"My life was 33 years in Italy," he said, "so this is different. But the culture is not very different. This is not Japan."

But it doesn't end there, for either Donadoni or the MetroStars. Recently, MLS deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati said he was discussing the box office/headliner equation with MetroStars' vice president and general manager Charlie Stillitano, now that the initial curiosity factor has worn off and MetroStars' attendance has declined a bit from last season's 24,000 average, roughly one-third through the second season.

"We've got very discerning fans," Stillitano noted. That's good; it means the team has found the sport's with effective marketing studies. That's bad, too; the MetroStars have struggled all season to reach .500 and those discriminating customers are making their ticket-buying decisions from week-to-week, based on the merit of the home team's performance as well as the quality of opposition. More of them are staying home and watched on cable TV, waiting for the team to get better.

So, as an added stimulant, what if the MetroStars were to sign Italian superstar Roberto Baggio? What kind of attendance boost would it take to be able to afford Baggio? (12,000 more per game was suggested, a huge jump.) What about the MLS salary cap of $1.3 million per team? What about the league having to pay the transfer fee to Baggio's current team, A.C. Milan, as it had to pay millions for the rights to sign Donadoni and other foreign MLS marquee players?

"In five years, they should allow every team to bring one more star," said MetroStars coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, himself a well-compensated star after having won the World Cup with Brazil in 1994. "Baggio wants to come. The league should allow it. Baggio would come; he told me, so you can write this. Allow every team to have a star, spend $5 million, $6 million, $7 million on that star. The teams can afford it."

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